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Media Trial: Pressing for Charges

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The professionalism and ethics of the media are constantly brought into question when it takes sides in a case and pronounces the accused guilty even before the court begins trial

By Abhilash Kumar Singh

The media plays a key role in shaping and changing the opinions of society. However, it is pertinent to look at its professionalism and ethics considering that media trials are often conducted in various mediums. There have been many cases where the media had taken cases into its own hands and declared an accused guilty even before the court has given its decision. The Sushant Singh Rajput case is one of them.

#Sorrybabu was trending last week on Twitter. The context was that someone from the Karni Sena organisation heard Sushant’s alleged girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty saying, “Sorry Babu” when she went to the mortuary to see his dead body. And people decided that she was apologising for murdering him. A few days back, some news channels decided that Sushant was not in depression because he was wishing good luck to a friend on WhatsApp and asking him to take care.

Read Also: Sushant Singh Rajput death: CBI registers case against Rhea and others

Some infamous cases would have led the court to declare the accused innocent. Two of them are the Jessica Lal murder case, 2010, and the Bijal Joshi rape case, 2005. Media trials led to widespread coverage of the guilt of the accused and led to a certain perception about him. It created hysteria among viewers in high-profile cases, making it nearly impossible for the trial to result in a fair judgment.

The history of media trials goes back to the 20th century. In the case of American silent movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1921), who was charged with the death of a woman, he was acquitted by the court, but lost his reputation and job after the media declared him “guilty”. Another famous case is the trial of former National Football League player, broadcaster and actor OJ Simpson who was tried and acquitted on two counts of murder for the June 12, 1994, deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. But the media influenced the mind of viewers and declared Simpson guilty. Media trials have caused wrongful portrayal of the accused and helped in destroying their careers.

The Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1), i.e., the right to hold opinions without any interference and the freedom to seek, receive, impart information, ideas of any kind regardless of the frontiers, either orally, or in writing, or even in print, or in any form of art, or through any other media of the person’s choice. This is also subject to special duties and responsibilities and the rights or reputations of others.

Freedom of the media is the freedom of people as they should be informed of public matters. It is, thus, needless to emphasise that a free and a healthy press is indispensable to the functioning of democracy. In a democratic set-up, there has to be active participation of people in all affairs of their community and the state. It is their right to be kept informed about the current political social, economic and cultural life as well as burning topics and important issues of the day in order to enable them to consider forming a broad opinion in which they are being managed, tackled and administered by the government and their functionaries.

To achieve this objective, the people need a clear and truthful account of events, so that they may form their own opinion and offer comments and viewpoints on such matters and select their future course of action. However, the freedom is not absolute as it is bound by sub-clause (2) of Article 19 (1). However, the right of freedom and speech and expression does not embrace the freedom to commit contempt of court.

In certain cases, the Supreme Court has stated that trial by the press, electronic media, social media or any public agitation are instances which could be described as antithesis of the general rule of law, leading to the miscarriage of justice.

Under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, any publication which interferes with, obstructs or tends to obstruct any proceeding, be it civil or criminal, and the course of justice, which is actually a pending proceeding, constitutes contempt of court. It has been termed as contempt because some of the acts which are published before the verdict given by the court can mislead the public and affect the rights of the accused for a fair trial. 

In the Aarushi Talwar murder case of 2008, the media had declared who was guilty even before the trial began. There were mass protests and the public was hysterical over news reports alleging that her parents were the cause of her death.

A journalist may be liable for contempt of court when he decides to publish anything which might go against “fair trial” for the accused or which may affect the impartiality of the court during any proceeding. The right to a fair trial is an absolute right provided to any individual as per Articles 14, 19, 20, 21 and 22 of the Constitution.

Media trials have also pressured lawyers not to take up cases where the public deems certain individuals guilty without actually being proven. This forces the accused to withdraw his right to have an advocate. The assumption of the media encroaches upon the right of the accused to have a fair trial as well as his right to have a good advocate.

Every news channel is after TRPs and no one wants to actually get justice for the accused. It is time for the media to be regulated so that the strict standards and ethics of journalism are maintained. If not, penal provisions should be kicked in. When the government can regulate movies, why not the media? The right to free press is only as good as the interests of the public for whom the news is being served.

The media is the cornerstone of our democracy which operates for the greater interest of society, but the legal process in any matter should not be hindered by it. The mandate of the press is limited to placing a matter in the consciousness of society without any presumption being given. Courts are the right forums for such decisions and they must be allowed to function without spreading prejudice in the public opinion. The right to a free and fair trial under Article 21 must be upheld.

—The writer is Advocate, Supreme Court of India

Lead picture: Rhea Chakraborty. Photo credit: Instagram

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